Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Great Conversion Stories: Lu Zhengxiang
By John Janaro
Among the founding fathers of the (non-Communist) Republic of China in 1912, one man in particular had a vision for his country deeply shaped by his newfound Catholic faith, while also firmly rooted in perennial Chinese aspirations.
Lu Zhengxiang (1871–1949) was born in Shanghai to Protestant parents. From his father he learned both the Christian faith and the broad ideals of the Confucian tradition (in a Christian context). For Lu, Confucius and Mencius represented the foundational reality of natural law as a guide to human life. He thus aspired to carry out the “will of heaven,” cultivate filial piety and a life of virtue, and look upon the whole world as “under heaven,” with a universal, harmonious humanism.
Lu had no ambitions to be a statesman, but the movement of events (in which he saw the hand of divine providence) opened up the unusual path of his life. He studied at the foreign-language schools in Shanghai and Beijing and so excelled in French that in 1892 he was appointed a translator to China’s embassy in Saint Petersburg, Russia, where French was the language of state business. He would spend the next twenty years mostly in Russia, but here he encountered a Chinese mentor who must have been a remarkable person. We can only wish more was known about Xu Jingcheng, China’s ambassador and a wonderfully inspired man. Xu taught Lu to be a statesman, a politician in the best sense, who put the good of his country ahead of factionalism. Xu saw that Europe, in spite of its decadence, had something fundamental to teach China and the world. He perceived that it was not primarily science or technology, but religion that originally made Europe unique, and he encouraged Lu to study Europe’s religious tradition. Xu was deeply impressed by his visits to Rome, and it struck him that the greatness of European religion was the universality, unity of governance, and antiquity of the Catholic religion (in unbroken continuity with its founder). It is not clear whether Xu became Catholic or even Christian or how much he understood, but he encouraged Lu to study deeply what he perceived to be the universal value of Catholic humanism, once the ideal of all Europe.
Meanwhile, Lu, the young French-speaking Chinese diplomat in Russia, met Berthe Bovy, niece of a Belgian diplomat and a devout Catholic. They married in the Catholic Church in 1899, and though Lu had no difficulty agreeing to the requirements of a non-Catholic in a Catholic marriage, he faced much criticism from the Chinese embassy for marrying a European. But they loved each other deeply and, although not able to have children, they shared a quarter-century together in a Christian marriage that—for its first decade—was a quiet, prayerful, exemplary environment for Lu’s study and increasing fascination with Catholicism. Berthe never “pushed” her faith on her husband, but by her life she showed him the real depth of following Jesus, and of the religion that Xu Jingcheng had heralded as crucial for China—the providential fulfillment of the best of China’s Confucian tradition.
On the heels of China’s first “revolution,” Lu was received into the Catholic Church. He was the only Catholic among the early architects of the new China—as foreign minister, twice as leader of Parliament, and as head of the 1919 Chinese delegation to Versailles. After Berthe’s death, he became a monk (then a priest) in the Belgian abbey of Saint-André, taking the name Pierre-Célestin.